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Around the galleries

Jankel Adler: modernist and visionary

— July 2014

Associated media

Jankel Adler, Girl (1940s), gouache on paper. From the Aukin Collecton 84.5 x 57cm

Adler's 'vision of searching originality and assurance, expressive fluency and the most compassionate poignancy' is celebrated at Uppingham

Jankel Adler found refuge in Glasgow in 1941, having been evacuated from Dunkirk, where he had served in the Polish Free Army. The 46-year-old Polish Jewish artist went on to create a moving and vibrant body of work. With his keenly articulated memories of friendships and associations with great modernist figures such as Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso and Otto Dix, Adler had a liberating effect on post-war British artists such as Robert Colquhoun (1914–62), Robert MacBryde (1913–66), Keith Vaughan (1912–77), and Prunella Clough (1919–99).

These last years (ending in 1949 when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack) were perhaps the most artistically fruitful of his itinerant life, and this exhibition of over 100 paintings and drawings from these years is his first substantial showing in this country since the Memorial Exhibition in 1951. During this late period, it seems that all he had learned and gleaned so intimately from European modernism was absorbed, assimilated and transfigured into a new vision of searching originality and assurance, expressive fluency and the most compassionate poignancy.

Adler's life was one of extreme vicissitudes and sufferings as well as immense resilience and spiritual resourcefulness (he had been brought up in a village near Lodz, where his father lived a life of mystical Jewish simplicity, and Jankel himself was thereafter inspired by the symbols, rituals and quotidian celebrations that distinguish Chassidism). After the War he learnt that his nine siblings had been murdered in the Holocaust; the only members of this large extended family to survive were a niece and a nephew. He once said that the Second World War began for him in 1933 when he had to flee Germany for Paris (leaving behind his non-Jewish wife Betty Kohlhaas and their beloved daughter Nina – he only saw them again on a few very fleeting occasions after the War).

The Nazis labelled him a 'degenerate' artist, and indeed many of his works in German public and private collections were destroyed. He witnessed the chaos and agonies of war at Dunkirk, and (though biographical details on this point are confused and contradictory), it seems that during the First World War he was conscripted into the Russian army in 1914 aged 19, and taken prisoner by the Germans.

What comes across insistently in this show is the considerable range and diversity of the work and the vivid alertness and unquenchable curiosity of the artist. He was buoyed up and nourished throughout a lifetime's often enforced wanderings by the fellowship, mutual succour and shared aims of the cosmopolitan avant-garde. In Lodz as a young man he was part of a salon of progressive young Jewish artists. In Berlin he befriended a leading poet, Else Lasker-Schűler. In Dusseldorf (where he settled in 1921) he taught at the Academy of Arts, had a studio adjoining Paul Klee's, and was painted as a fiercely visionary figure by Otto Dix. He was also photographed in characteristically elegant attire of dark suit and white silk scarf by August Sander. Then in Glasgow he re-established his friendship with fellow Polish Jewish refugee artist Josef Herman (the latter recalling that Adler nursed him with 'maternal kindness' when Herman discovered the fate of his own extended family in the Holocaust).

At last he settled in London, where he absorbed himself into a milieu of rising young painters and poets such as Dylan Thomas and George Barker.

A close friend testified that Adler suffered inevitably from rootlessness and cultural dislocation in his last years, despite his comparative success as an artist, exhibiting with Gimpel Fils in London. Possibly the unconscious pressure of this traumatic mourning for the loss of his family in Poland, and the extinction of most of European Jewry, may have led to his untimely death. But it would be wrong to characterize Adler as a defeated man in those last years; a fellow artist, Michael Middelton, described:

[the] serenity of Jankel’s personality, at once tremendously alert and calm. Notwithstanding momentary explosions of anger and periods of frustration and grief, he was remarkably unembittered by the many trials of his life. To the end he had sometimes to pay the greengrocer with a drawing; to the end he remained an exile without a passport. I believe, however, that he made a mark upon posterity.'

Further reminiscences by people who knew him well in Britain give clues to the man and his work:

Everything Adler planned he carried out in an exact manner... His studio was meticulously clean, more like a laboratory. There were spacious desks made of smoothly planed boards.

There was some relationship between the compact intensity of[his] small body and the way he used to paint: orderly, sparingly... His speech was like that too.

Herman recalled that:

Adler was a hard worker. Long hours. Systematically ordered days. Planned weeks, even months. It was his habit to work on several paintings at once.

A large oil painting, Composition, is one of several powerful still-lifes here. They are, paradoxically, at once sumptuous and austere in nature. These portray wide arrays of domestic artefacts, fruits, vegetables and other comestibles, as well as enigmatic unidentifiable objects. Set out with Cubist meticulousness, such items are delineated with sturdy black outlines so that their appearance is one of incandescent immediacy – like swathes of stained glass – their glowing painterliness surely intensified by Adler's characteristic admixture of oil and sand. Herman recalled that Adler:

was a passionate gourmet: sampling, discovering, refining, constantly looking for rarer and rarer nuances and hardly dicernible delicacies. He virtually turned this into a complete aesthetic system.

The monumental, spaciously rendered figures of Adler's 1920s paintings – influenced by Assyrian friezes and Léger – became increasingly abstracted during the 1930s. Later on, the figural compositions are tauter, more delicately and spontaneously calligraphic. Bird and Cage is a remarkably transcendent, poignantly hopeful painting to have arisen during the 1940s, showing a skeletal, colourless bird (having been released from the bleak grid of its cage) about to soar out of the window into a sky of coalescing pale pinks, greys and blues. The tall angular abstracted figure freeing the symbolic (yet vividly present) bird appears like the offspring of a marriage between Klee and Picasso. Middleton recorded: ‘Taxed with standing midway between Picasso and Klee, Adler once replied, “A very good place to stand”’.

The exhibition contains pictures of both dynamic playfulness (such as a study of an absurdly muscular man performing a Handstand) and an undemonstrative yet deep joy in nature (as in an immaculately terse drawing of a Calf Suckling). Drawings and paintings of a female model (perhaps a close companion) are sensuously tender, at once serene and gravely dignified – with styles ranging from anarchic erotic Fauvism to rigorously observed Expressionism.

The series of late gouaches In Commemoration of the Polish War Dead are important masterpieces. A spectral yet diaphanous figure of a girl against an eerily beautiful blood-red wash backdrop in one of these pictures, holds onto mysterious objects whose possibly sacred meaning remains ineffable. Her disquieting pin-head eyes are reminiscent of a figure by Klee. These anguished, radiant works show Adler's powers of artistry and expression at their most consummate and subtly poetic.


Philip Vann
Cambridge, UK
Art historian
Philip Vann is the author, with Gerard Hastings, of Keith Vaughan published by Lund Humphries, 2012. 184pp., fully illustrated in mono and colour, £40.00 hardback. ISBN 9781848220973. Reviewed in Cassone in April 2013

Editor's notes

‘Jankel Adler: The British Years’ is at the Goldmark Gallery,  until 25 July 2014

Goldmark Gallery

14 Orange Street
LE15 9SQ

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